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NHL players union agrees on returning to play with 24-team format

Th executive board’s vote is a first step but doesn’t seal the deal for the season resuming. More pieces must be negotiated.

The NHL Players Association’s executive committee has authorized moving forward in talks with the league on returning to play from the coronavirus suspension, approving 24 teams making the playoffs, with other aspects of a return still to be negotiated

The union did not provide a breakdown of the vote of its 31 player representatives in making the announcement Friday night, a day after the proposal was presented to the union’s executive board. In giving the 24-team format the green light, the union stressed that several details still need to be negotiated before games can begin.

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Pittsburgh player representative Kris Letang told Canada’s Sportsnet. “But we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

The defenseman said he voted in favor of the proposal. Some players shared strong opinions on a Thursday conference call, he said, “but we have a union for everyone to express our views. Whatever the format is, some agree, some don’t. As a union, we want to make the best decisions over time, the greater good for everyone."

"The most important thing is everybody’s health.”

The proposal now goes to the board of governors, which is expected to approve the plan in the next few days. Once approved, the proposal effectively ends the season of the league’s bottom seven teams.

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Under the plan proposed by the joint NHL/union Return To Play Committee, the top four teams in each of the Eastern and Western conferences based on points percentage would play each other for seeding while the remaining 16 teams would face off in a best-of-five series play-in round to set the final 16 to compete for the Stanley Cup.

That would mean byes for Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East and defending champion St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West. Pittsburgh, Carolina, the New York Islanders and Rangers, Toronto, Columbus, Florida and Montreal would also make it in the East. Edmonton, Nashville, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Arizona and Chicago would make the field in the West.

“I feel like if you’re doing the 24-team thing, it basically gives a team a chance that had no chance of making it, which if you play 82 (games), there’s maybe 6, 8 percent chance that the team in 12th place (in the conference) makes it,” Carolina player representative Jordan Martinook said Wednesday, more than 24 hours before the executive board meeting. “Nobody’s ever seen this before, but at the end of the day, the Stanley Cup playoffs are 16 teams, seven games a series.”

Under the 24-team format, the traditional four rounds of seven-game series would be played after the play-in round.

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“I don’t think there’s going to be a perfect scenario where everyone’s super excited about (it)‚” Nashville’s Ryan Johansen said earlier Thursday. “As long as everybody can agree and be happy with the decision that will be made, that’s really all that matters.”

If the board of governors approves the 24-team plan, the who of returning would be set. The where, when and how still would have to be determined, including how many cities would host games, quarantine regulations and testing.

“Nothing’s really certain until it’s certain, so things can change so quickly, and they have on different things,” Return to Play committee member James van Riemsdyk of the Flyers said Wednesday. “We’re trying to keep as many options open and navigate through different things and hopefully come up with a vision that obviously first and foremost is the health and safety of everyone.”

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Commissioner Gary Bettman this week said the league was looking at eight or nine locations to serve as hub cities for the resumption of the season.

It’s unclear when the league and players would agree to begin the second phase of preparations for return, which would be the reopening of team practice facilities and voluntary workouts. The following step would then likely be a three-week training camp before games resume.

"Obviously it's an important thing to navigate through all the different issues that there are so that ultimately we can try to find a safe way to get things going here," van Riemsdyk said. "There's been some different talks and things like that and talking about a bunch of different things and trying to sort through some different issues."

Times staff writer Diana C. Nearhos contributed to this report.

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